Blacksburg has many vibrant and new public art installations. Artists have used walls, sidewalks and even utility boxes as their own natural canvases to display their art to those passing by. These murals are integral to Blacksburg’s landscape and both tell the community’s story and spread a message through paint and design. The public nature of Blacksburg’s downtown murals makes it easy for anyone to appreciate art when they stroll downtown to get dinner or head to class, no matter who they are.
In Squires, a massive set of wings adorns the wall on the third floor of the building. The mural takes up the entire maroon wall with its white and orange feathers. Blocky letters spell out “Be Limitless” on top of the piece, spreading over the wings. These wings were painted by Nikki Pynn, an artist and teacher who received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from VCU with a degree in painting and printmaking.
Pynn’s time at VCU informed her current work and helped her create this mural because of her experience painting large pieces.
“It’s a thrill to be able to do something like a mural because that means you get to do a large painting, but you don’t have to find a place to put it,” Pynn said.
Pynn’s mural was commissioned by Robin Scully from Perspectives Gallery at Virginia Tech. The idea of a wings mural has been done many times across the United States, with Kelsey Montague popularizing the idea of an interactive set of wings with her mural of butterfly wings connected to the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou in New York. Anyone can sit between the two wings to create the illusion that they have wings, making the mural a great place for photos.
Pynn had to think about how to make the mural inclusive of everyone.
“The wings had to work for people standing up as well as people sitting down, like people sitting in wheelchairs,” Pynn said.
Pynn also had to consider the shape of the wings and research different types of wings before settling on one.
“I started looking at wings, and I ran across a turkey wing,” Pynn said. “It was a wild turkey wing, and it happened to be the perfect shape. They (Scully) wanted the colors that are the Virginia Tech colors.”
Pynn also painted the electrical boxes in the Blacksburg’s Farmers Market. She was able to come up with her own ideas for this project and went with people dancing and throwing vegetables.
“It was really nice to just have total free reign with that,” Pynn said. “I went with people dancing and throwing vegetables because that’s the kind of joy that I get when I’m at the Farmers Market. It’s lighthearted, it’s free, it’s healthy.”
If you’ve walked through downtown Blacksburg, you’ve definitely noticed the large mural covering the wall at 208 N. Main St. Ellen Morris, an artist who received her Master of Fine Arts with a degree in graphic design from Radford University, painted the Main Street mural with iconic buildings from Blacksburg and a bright, colorful sunset rising behind. The phrase “Live Fully” is centered in the middle of the wall and brings a positive and uplifting energy to the downtown area.
Morris’ design was selected by Downtown Blacksburg Inc. when it was accepting submissions for a mural meant to promote Blacksburg and welcome students back to campus after COVID-19 lockdowns. Her design was created with the thought of bringing people back to downtown Blacksburg and promoting it during the stressful times at the height of the pandemic. Morris got her references for the mural online.
“I took a screenshot on Google Earth of the middle of the road in downtown with some of the major buildings and some of the more well-known buildings down there,” Morris said. “I brought it into Photoshop and manipulated it to give it that artistic, stylized kind of feel.”
Morris also shares Pynn’s love for painting large pieces. “I like to paint big because I like the movement that you have to do when you paint large things,” Morris said. “I feel like you have to step away from it and look at it and really have to get involved with moving your arms around.”
There were challenges when designing and painting the mural when Morris was finally able to see the wall her design would be painted on.
“It was only meant to be a 6-by-6-foot mural, so that’s what I designed,” Morris said. “They didn’t realize how large the wall actually was. They came to the conclusion to change the mural to be 21 feet by 17 feet, which was eight or nine times bigger, so I was pretty terrified.”
Morris accepted the challenge as a way to get her mind off being isolated in her apartment during that period of the pandemic. “It was an incredible opportunity just for the experience,” she said.
Wording also had to be chosen carefully in order to be sensitive to the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Morris was asked to change her wording from “Let’s Live” to “Live Fully.” “They said that it might have been a little offensive to people who COVID because they couldn’t live like other people could,” Morris said.
Morris has gone on to do other large-scale murals. She recently completed one for the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center, which you can find at Morris’ website, Overlooked Companions.
The next time you walk though Main Street or in Squires, make sure to check out Morris’ and Pynn’s murals, two focal points of the Blacksburg art scene that anyone can pass by and enjoy.